Developers have proposed a seven-story, 102-unit apartment building on Detroit Avenue, but some Mexican-American activists say the plan would erase an important part of their community’s history. Under the proposal, Club Azteca, a nonprofit club for Mexican-Americans that dates back to 1932 but has fallen on hard times, would be demolished. Advocates say the club is a critical part of the Mexican-American community’s legacy in Cleveland and want to see it preserved.
“We just found out about this 10 days ago,” said Veronica Dahlberg, executive director of HOLA Ohio, a statewide nonprofit organization based in Painesville that works with the Latinx community. “It’s excruciating that the city did not find any value in this historic and iconic building that was built in 1900 and really does represent 100 years of Mexican-American history in Cleveland. Why are other narratives elevated but not ours? We, too, are part of the history of this city.”
Proponents of the plan said they tried to honor the club’s history in their plans, but the building is not architecturally significant and is beyond saving. Club leader Ruth Rubio told Cleveland.com she reached out to the Latinx community but did not receive support. “We’ve come to the end of the line. We’ve decided to kind of bow gracefully, and we would like it to be done in a way to where it will be worth its legacy,” she said.
At the Thurs. Feb. 25th meeting of the Cleveland Landmarks Commission, which considered whether to grant the developers the ability to demolish the property, which is located at 5602 Detroit Ave., Justin Strizzi of Bond Street LLC said he’s been working on the project for over a year. He was encouraged by the community to include Club Azteca in the site plan, he said. He and his partners, Todd Lebow and Taylor Hawkins, have signed a contract to purchase six adjacent parcels at 5506 Detroit from the Myanmar family, which owns the Vietnamese market next door. It would also be demolished. Bond Street worked with Club Azteca’s current leaders to help them pay off back taxes and donate the property to the Cuyahoga Land Bank.
“Our goal was to add residential density to the neighborhood and fill in some of the missing teeth on Detroit,” he told the Landmarks Commission. “We wanted to respect neighboring properties while creating a thoughtful public engagement process.”
Attorney Adam Rosen, who represents the developers, urged commission members to consider only the historic character of the building in making its decision. “An argument could be made that the building is physically obsolete and there are few features worth preserving,” said Rosen. “It needs significant repair just to be code compliant.”
A letter by Dahlberg, Eduardo Rodriguez of Comite Mexicano de Cleveland, Selena Pagan of Young Latino Network, and Jose Cabrera of Avanzamos Unidos, details the club’s historic significance. Mexican immigrants first settled in Cleveland in 1920, and by 1926, they began organizing Club Azteca, but they lacked their own location. After obtaining permission from the owners, they held meetings in the basement of the building at 5602 Detroit Avenue, which was then a hardware store. They bought the building in 1951 for $5,500 and took possession of the property in 1952. Throughout the years, they held events that “maintained and promoted Mexican culture by featuring banquets of Mexican food, folkloric dancers, and prominent speakers, such as the Mexican consul, a diplomat with an office in Cleveland at one time.”
The Mexican community in Cleveland was quite vibrant at the time. However, when the federal government implemented “Operation Wetback” in 1954, a “brutal round-up” of immigrants decimated the community. Club Azteca’s leaders apparently later fell on hard times and began holding dance parties to raise money. Over the years, they accumulated debts and tax liens.
According to an article in Cleveland.com, “The developer and the club came to an agreement last year that paves the way for the 1,900-square-foot building’s demolition after a decade of inactivity and neglect that the club said rendered it unsalvageable. It also meant a clean break for the club, which has struggled to pay taxes on the property and twice faced foreclosure in recent years. Club leader Ruth Rubio said she received assurances from Bond Street officials that they will work together to figure out how to honor the legacy of the building and the club itself, which is still active today despite a dwindling membership. The company also said it is committed to receiving input from Club Azteca.”
At the Landmarks meeting, the developer stated that if the Cuyahoga Land Bank had not acquired the property, it would have been sold at sheriff’s sale. The current plan, they said, allows a portion of the club’s legacy to be preserved, although details haven’t been worked out. The Gordon Square local landmarks committee previously voted unanimously to recommend demolition of the building. The city also supports the project.
Yet Ward 15 council member Jenny Spencer said that stakeholders and partners should have involved the broader Latinx community sooner. “These buildings are markers of immigrants who built and sacrificed for the community,” she said. “We are losing some of that history when we lose these buildings. I had a blind spot when it comes to this project. I believe that there’s a genuine interest in Detroit Shoreway that the legacy of Club Azteca be preserved. The building does not need to be preserved in order to preserve the club’s legacy.”
Over the past decade, mid-rise apartment buildings have been constructed on Detroit, but this is the first such project to come to the Detroit Shoreway area. The other buildings have been built further east in Ohio City, near the intersection of West 25th in the so-called Hingetown area. However, city planners and community development groups have long called for additional density along the corridor, which offers views of Lake Erie and downtown. The project would also bring additional development to the Gordon Square Arts District, which now extends as far east as West 54th Street.
Landmarks postponed a vote to allow more time for the parties to meet and negotiate. During a concept review plan, several commission members praised the use of brick materials, but expressed concern that the project was too tall and out of scale with the surrounding neighborhood.
Strizzi said the developers are committed to working with the Latinx community to honor Club Azteca’s legacy, but that wouldn’t necessarily mean saving the building. “The conversation about how to honor the legacy of Club Azteca is an open conversation, but it was less about the physical building, and more about honoring the mission of the organization,” he said.
Yet Dahlberg said advocates would not accept any other option beyond preserving Club Azteca. “I can’t imagine demolishing it and saying we’d be fine with a plaque,” she said. “We need time to process this and find a way to preserve this heritage.”
View agendas and meeting information for the Cleveland Landmarks commission here.
Lee Chilcote is a freelance writer and editor of The Land.
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